Utilizing the space environment to advance research and development in the agrifood sector

Space-based research platforms such as the International Space Station (ISS) serve as unique microgravity laboratories for conducting innovative research and development (R&D) in a variety of domains, including agrifood. The integration of space technology and research results with the agricultural and food production sectors could open up unprecedented opportunities to support and enhance R&D efforts within the agrifood sector.

November 2024

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From research on plant stress resistance, healthy food and sustainable food production, to cellular food R&D or improving crop yield, microgravity can play a significant role. The space environment can enable the development of new solutions and applications that will have impact both on our daily lives on Earth, as well as in future space exploration endeavours.

The microgravity environment of the ISS offers a controlled setting for investigating fundamental and applied agrifood processes. Researchers can explore plant growth, protein crystallization, fluids stability, and microbial behavior without the influence of Earth’s gravity. These insights are invaluable for improving plant health, optimizing crop cultivation and protection techniques, even in challenging environments on Earth, such as deserts or urban areas, protein structure analysis, and the development of novel food production and preservation methods. Additionally, the space radiation environment can allow to investigate the impacts of cosmic radiation on seeds, which can lead to the development of radiation-resistant crops for terrestrial agriculture.

The ISS also serves as a crucial testbed for closed-loop life support systems. These systems are vital for long-duration space missions, but their development also has direct applications in sustainable agrifood production on Earth. Efficient recycling of water, nutrients, by-products, and waste in space can be translated into sustainable farming and food production practices, reducing resource consumption and environmental impact.

Finally, a number of commercial space stations and habitats are currently under development, promising a new chapter in space exploration, with unprecedented opportunities. These efforts may unlock longer missions and presence in space of a larger number of people. In addition, venturing farther from the low Earth orbit means crews will have to become more self-reliant and autonomous. Agrifood R&D activities in space may provide valuable insights and techniques, as well as spinoff technologies and new solutions to various terrestrial industries.

In conclusion, space-based research platforms, such as the ISS, provide an innovative research environment, and a wealth of opportunities to address the pressing challenges of food production and sustainability, with benefits for Earth and Space.

A presentation by Leonardo Surdo, Project Manager at Space Applications Services NV/SA.

What drives Leonardo!
He is driven by Space-based R&D which can provide valuable data, insights, and solutions for improving crop yields, resource management, and sustainability in agriculture. Harnessing the power of space for agrifood R&D can help us feed not only human crews during deep space exploration missions, but also a growing global population on Earth, while minimizing environmental impact.

In the realm of agrifood R&D in space, two emerging technologies/trends show great potential in both the short and long run:

  • Controlled Environment Agriculture: This involves growing crops in controlled environments, such as greenhouses or hydroponic systems, where environmental factors like temperature, humidity, and light can be precisely regulated. This technology is crucial for space agriculture as it allows for efficient and reliable food production in the challenging conditions of space. In the short term, controlled environment agriculture is essential for sustaining space missions, and in the long run, it could contribute to sustainable food production on Earth as well.
  • Advanced Biotechnology: Advancements in biotechnology, including genetic engineering and synthetic biology, have the potential to revolutionize agrifood production in space. Researchers are exploring the modification of crops to thrive in space environments, with characteristics like enhanced nutrient content, resilience to radiation, and reduced resource requirements. In the short run, these technologies can improve the efficiency of space agriculture, and in the long term, they may be essential to address the pressing challenges of food production and sustainability on Earth as well.

These emerging technologies hold promise for addressing food security challenges in space exploration and colonization efforts, making them of significant importance both in the short and long run.

About Leonardo Surdo
Leonardo Surdo graduated with a M.Sc. in Medical Biotechnology and Molecular Medicine from the University of Bari in 2010 and with a M.Sc. in Space Sciences from the International Space University in 2012. Mr. Surdo has been working for the last 10 years at the European Space Agency as project scientist for biology and environmental monitoring experiments on-board the International Space Station (ISS), Moon and Mars missions. He is now working for the ICE Cubes Service as project manager for hardware development of space experiments in life and physical sciences.

About Space Applications Services NV/SA
The International Commercial Experiment Cubes (ICE Cubes) Service is provided by Space Applications Services NV/SA, is a simple and cost-effective way for your experiment or technology to fly onboard the International Space Station. The ICE Cubes team of experts have extensive experience in developing and coordinating experiments. We believe that more people should have access to flight opportunities and with ICE Cubes we believe we have made that possible.

For more information, visit the website.

Leonardo Surdo is speaker at the 2023 edition of the Agrifood Innovation Event.